Saving the City
Shelters Aren’t A Permanent Solution

New York Newsday | November 12, 1991

By Ellen Baxter

Mayor Dinkins’ new proposal to scatter 35 specialized shelters throughout the city for $250 million is bad news for everyone. The furious opposition of elected officials and neighbors of the proposed sites was predictable and motivated, clearly, by racism and the stereotyping of homeless and poor people. Homeless people themselves, though, will be the biggest losers if the city pursues a strategy of building more temporary shelters.

City Council hearings are coming up on the plan, which appears doomed already. But the failure of this proposal should not be used to excuse inaction. There is a way to unite the shared interests of most New Yorkers, homeless people and government. A more politically palatable and conceptually sound approach would be to help local nonprofit organizations develop these same sites as affordable permanent housing. Such housing could integrate homeless people with those residents of the community who are now living doubled-up and in danger of becoming homeless themselves.

Involving nonprofits as sponsors is crucial to diffusing neighborhood resistance. The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) has been relatively successful at developing permanent housing for homeless and low-income people with community support. By shifting capital from the Human Resources Administration, which runs the shelters, to HPD, and relaxing bureaucratic controls, the city would be following a wiser policy on sheltering homeless people.

We all know that shelters, large or small, are not the best places to provide for people in need of special care. Why use scarce capital resources on emergency or temporary care rather than on permanent housing and support services? The cost of congregate shelters is nearly twice the capital cost of permanent housing – and that’s not including the tab for 24-hour shelter staff.

This December marks the 10th anniversary of the opening in upper Manhattan of the Fort Washington shelter for homeless men. This winter, as many as 1,500 men will crowd into its huge one room filled with row upon row of beds. Many will be mentally ill and many infected with tuberculosis. How many among them have AIDS is unknown, but no resources are available to help them anyway. The shelter stands as a monument to a decade of official negligence and barbarism during which the homeless population has not diminished at all. Those who’ve seen what goes on inside – social workers and politicians – are horrified by how bad and expensive the system is.

In frustration and desperation, concerned New Yorkers have rejected the city’s shelter system and taken a more active and long-term approach to homelessness and its related problems. Homeless advocates have been renovating abandoned buildings and leasing apartments to homeless individuals on a permanent basis. On-site social and mental health services are often essential components, and both the housing and the service efforts receive public funding. The Committee for the Heights-Inwood Homeless. where I work, integrates both healthy and disabled tenants who assume primary responsibility for managing their own homes. In once dilapidated residential buildings we’ve developed housing for 220 formerly homeless people so far, and we intend to do more.

Other nonprofit sponsors have devised a variety of ways to house people well and inexpensively. There is no fancy technique or single solution. The trick, I think, is to provide a secure, decent and supportive environment where people debilitated by homelessness and other ills can make a progressive recovery. Years ago, a colleague described his philosophy about social service in a way that stuck with me: “What we are trying to do is make the systems, which people need and are entitled to,  work so that we can all live like human beings. It’s so simple that, well, you get embarrassed trying to explain it…”

It is true that some people in shelters and on the streets are so badly damaged that they could not assume the responsibilities of tenancy in housing such as ours. But they are a small minority, and for them hospitals and drug treatment programs are viable options. Yet policy on homelessness seems fixated on this minority. The truth is, with the right help, most mentally ill homeless people, most substance abusers in recovery, and most persons with AIDS make fine tenants and can maintain
housing as well as anyone else.

Mayor Dinkins and most New Yorkers share a fundamental desire to solve the homeless problem. Housing is our surest cure, and it is certainly within our technological reach, Unfortunately, layers of governmental bureaucracy have obscured what are really very simple and direct cost effective strategies. The marginal gains we’ve made in the last 10 years are owed largely to litigation and the intervention of the courts. But legal action to force government to act is no solution. The growing violence spawned by poverty and homelessness demands a plan grounded in the long-term needs of the homeless and of the city, which must welcome them back from the margins as neighbors and citizens.

I’ve been an advocate for homeless people for 12 years, but I haven’t grown tired or cynical. I’m convinced that perseverance and pragmatism pay off, and that if our commitment to solving the problems of homelessness, racism, poverty and dependency is strong, their solutions can be simple.

© 2020 Broadway Housing Communites, Inc.